稱香港為 barren rock 一事，傳說出自香港開埠時擔任英國外相的第三代巴麥尊子爵譚普 (Henry John Temple, the third Viscount Palmerston)。據說，譚普批評香港為 "a barren rock with nary a house upon it. It will never be a mart for trade."
此事，學術期刊提過，外國有公營廣播機構也提過，財政司司長曽俊華更提過不止一次，還清楚指出那是1841年的事。很詭異的是，對這麼流行的傳說，竟無人講得出當年的報章書刊有何紀錄。上網搜尋的話，Google 找不到，Bing 找不到，Duck Duck Go 找不到，Internet Archive 與 Project Gutenberg 也找不到。巴麥尊子爵的批評，就好像《攻殻機動隊》裏面的文章《個別的十一人》那般，人人都以為自己讀過，兼說它出自政治哲學家 Patrick Sylvester 手筆，卻無人拿得出原始文獻。
查實早在香港開埠前幾十年，已經有人用 barren 來形容香港。譬如自然學家 Dr Clarke Abel 撰於1818年的 Narrative of a Journey in the interior of China，提起他逗留香港時的短暫考察，就有如下敘述 (pp.60-62)：
… The general surface of the mountain （筆者按：指太平山）, and indeed of every part of the island of Hong-kong that I was able to visit, is remarkably barren, although in the distance it appears fertile, from a fern which I believe to be the Polypodium trichotomum of Kaempfer, which supplies the place of other plants.作者登島所見地方，若非光禿禿的玄武岩，就是遠看貌似肥沃，近觀卻是多蕨少樹的貧瘠土地。因此文中 "barren" 一個詞，其實是不夠植被，土壤貧瘠的意思。你可以說他跑不夠多地方，但他由頭到尾並無刻意貶抑，只是如實紀錄而已。
… On reaching the shore, I examined the rocks by the water-fall, where they are exposed in large surfaces, and found them composed of basaltic trap, exhibiting in some places a distinct stratification, in others a confused columnar arrangement. It is also divided into distinct, well defined rhomboidal masses, separated from each other by very obvious seams, in which I frequently found cubic crystals of iron pyrites.
… I may now be expected to give some description of the scenery and inhabitants of Hong-kong, but of either I have little to say. Its scenery is composed of barren rocks, deep ravines, and mountain-torrents, but presents few characters of a very picturesque description.
貧瘠一如蘇格蘭離島事實上，同時代許多其他描述，都清楚表明當年香港相當貧瘠。 1841年的 The Museum of Foreign Literature, Science, and Art, vol. 42 (v.14 of the New Series)，就轉載了幾篇文章，其中一篇 (p.360) 將香港比作蘇格蘭西北的 Hebrides 羣島：
Hong-kong may, as regards its scenic appearance, be well compared to the Hebrides, and is quite as barren.並提到士丹頓從男爵（中環士丹頓街即以其命名）亦稱香港為 "very barren and unproductive"。另一篇文章 (p.361) 分析得更深入。作者說，比起馬來亞和印尼一帶，香港顯得十分荒蕪 。儘管相對而言，香港並非寸草不生，但由於土壤（多為堅硬的花崗岩）、水土流失及風勢緣故，很少樹木可以抵受這樣的環境：
The island of Hong-Kong may be described as a huge pile of ragged hills, which here and there start up into precipitous peaks. It is barren and intractable in its aspect, especially when compared those rich scenes which meet the eye in the straits of Sunda. But this barrenness is relative, for the slopes are covered with a hardy kind of grass, except in spots where the soil has been sifted by an avalanche, or the rock broken into an escarpment by volcanic action. The naked and unproductive character of the hills in the southern parts of China the writer had been led to ascribe to the meagre and hungry nature of the soil, as the rock from which it is produced is a hard sort of granite, yielding but little clay as a material for the sub-soil; when, however, he visited Hong-kong, and found it mainly composed of trap, in which clay is abundant, he began to feel it necessary to modify the opinion which he had formerly entertained. The barren aspect assumed by the projecting points and angles of Hong-kong, or rather the want of trees to clothe and decorate them, must be ascribed to the northeast wind, which blows with such a keen and biting edge, that few trees, save the Pinus Linensis, which resembles our Scotch fir, can endure it.一篇1846年文章 "Hong-Kong, from Kow-loon" （載於 China, in a series of views, displaying the scenery, architecture, and social habits, of that ancient empire, vol. 3）亦說香港很荒蕪，就算每年有幾個月望落好似好綠，其實想揾顆樹都難：
From the summit to the water's edge there are few or no trees; and, except in the months of May, June, July, and August, when these islands look green, they might be supposed to be quite barren.而根據 Oh for the Joys of England 一文所載 (Journal of the Hong Kong Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1842)，當時留駐香港，第九十八軍團的 Lieutenant Orlando Bridgeman 更表示，整個島上，就只有快活谷有一顆樹：
“There is only one spot in the whole of the island that has a tree on it. it is called Happy Valley, and is certainly a pretty spot. The rest of the island is one barren rock and perfectly devoid of all vegetation.”當然，Lieutenant Bridgeman 未必跑遍了整個島，他這個講法，可能有點誇張，然而綜合各人所述，可知香港所謂 "barren"，指的是蘇格蘭高地式的荒蕪。雖未至於毫無植被，但土壤貧瘠，不利農耕。硬要將 "barren rock" 說成荒島，然後再反駁荒島一說，只不過是大打稻草人，斷章取義而已。
今日香港島密林滿布，說香港舊日到處光禿禿有點難以置信，但翻查史料，今日香港島樹木茂盛，其實是拜港府自1870年代起不斷植林所賜。一般人很難想象這是多麼漫長而浩大的工程。根據學者研究 (Dudgeon and Corlett 1994, Corlett 1999, Hung 2010)，到1900年，亦即䦕始植林三十年之後，香港島的樹林覆蓋率亦只有28%；直至1938年，覆蓋率方達70%。
（有關香港的植林史，由港大歷史系學者 Dr Robert Peckham 撰寫的論文 Hygienic Nature: Afforestation and the greening of colonial Hong Kong (2014) 相當值得一讀。）
肚餓不能打仗既然香港島土地貧瘠，以它為軍港，軍需問題就更形重要。早期文獻中，稱香港為 barren rock，若非出於學術角度，關心的幾乎都是糧食生產，完全與自抬身價無關。譬如據1845年十二月的 The Chinese Repository 記載，香港第三任庫政司孖沙 (Robert Montgomery Martin) 當時正準備返英一趟，其目的很可能是為了說服英廷放棄香港這塊 barren rock，換取可以生產米糧的舟山羣島：
Soon after, we found it mentioned in the Hongkong Gazette that Mr. Montgomery Martin, the treasurer of the colony, was about to proceed to England by way of Bombay, and we suggested that his voyage might have reference to the Chusan question. We now find that the same opinion has been entertained by the Courier, since the arrival of Mr. Martin at Bombay. Our contemporary states that "the object of his journey is to induce H.M. government to give up Hongkong again to Chinese, and to take in lieu the island of Chusan, which it is now found is much better adapted for the purposes of trade, more healthy, and unquestionably more productive. While Hongkong is a barren rock, Chusan is quite the reverse, and would produce rice enough to support a very large population."1900 年由香港出版的官方歷史 (A.G. M., Hong Kong: a short history of the colony and an outline of the present political situation in China, Hong Kong, Publicity Bureau for South China, 1900, p.17) 當中，稱香港一邊為 barren rock，重點也是放在糧食生產之上：
On one side of the harbour there was an almost barren rock, with practically no food resources; on the other side a large Chinese camp was under construction.種種文獻顯示，稱香港為 barren rock，並非低貶，而是事實。我反而覺得，是有論者試圖貶低英國人的貢獻才真。